Greening the urban crush: electric car innovators

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To most Americans, the cures for traffic congestion are worse than the congestion itself,” Anthony Downs, an economist specialising in public policy and administration, is quoted as saying (in environmental scientist and urban design consultant, Dom Nozzi’s blog, Walkable Streets).


Of course, the phenomenon of highly polluting and economically costly traffic gridlock is not just a preserve of the Americans. It’s getting worse worldwide due to urbanisation (which, unlike urban traffic, is accelerating) and rising GDP per capita.

Some innovative companies are already growing their businesses through the appeal of their ‘green’ solutions to this problem. But before we look at these still-embryonic initiatives, maybe it’s worth reflecting on the vastness of the problem they are seeking to chip away at.

Today, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This is expected to increase to 66% by 2050, according to the 2014 revision of the report World Urbanization Prospects compiled by UN DESA’s Population Division. Projections show that urbanisation and the mushrooming global population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050 – on top (possibly literally) of the 3.9 billion urban dwellers there already were in 2014.

In Europe, things are getting even cosier, even faster: some 80% of Europeans are expected to be living urban lives by 2020, according to the European Environment Agency.

The economic and environmental impacts of bigger city populations and more inner city traffic are staggering. The average driving speed crossing central London is just under 9 mph (14 kph – according to Transport for London); in Manhattan, it’s 8.51 mph (13.6 kph – according to the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority). Compare this to the recent Boston marathon winner who ran his 26 (admittedly traffic-free) miles at a pace that was 50% faster than that.

The cumulative financial cost of major city road congestion in the US, the UK, France and Germany has been estimated for the period 2013 to 2030 in a joint study by traffic analysts, INRIX, with the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Each year, car commuters in the US and Europe on average currently spend about three working weeks (111 hours) stuck in gridlock, costing each individual an average USD 1 740 a year. The combined annual cost of such gridlock to the countries in the study is expected to rise by 50% to USD 293.1 billion by 2030.

London will see a 71% rise in the cost of congestion by 2030 – the highest rise of all the cities in the study due to it undergoing the greatest increase in urbanisation. As British financier Evelyn de Rothschild wrote recently in the Financial Times: “London’s often imbecilic transport arrangements are a serious problem for a global city that is the engine of the British economy.” Reducing gridlock – in London, Paris and many other major cities – and ensuring that a greater proportion of traffic generates zero harmful emissions, are the driving appeals behind various organisations’ and companies’ electric car initiatives.

In 2010, transport accounted for about 23% of global CO2 emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector have more than doubled since 1970, faster than any other energy end-use. Last year, UN Habitat introduced the Urban Electric Mobility Initiative with the specific aim of achieving the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in cities to the point where travel in such vehicles makes up 30% of total urban journeys by 2030.

Of course, although electric vehicles emit zero exhaust-pipe emissions, they are not an absolute environmental panacea. No matter how efficient the car battery, it needs re-charging from the electric grid. And the amount of electrical power used to construct the car (and its battery) in the first place should also be taken into account – particularly in countries like the UK that currently use a high proportion of coal for their electrical generation.

Nevertheless, in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux and several other major cities including Indianapolis in the US, French-based industrial group, Bolloré, is succeeding in growing the appeal of self-service electric car hire. In Paris, the scheme is known as Autolib’. Customers can rent one of 2 900 ‘Bluecars’ – 100% electric vehicles powered by Bolloré’s trademarked 250km range LMP® (lithium metal polymer) battery – available at 900 strategically-located roadside points around the city, for journeys as short as 20 minutes. A simple, clean and highly flexible solution, Autolib’ clearly has an appeal; in its first three years it registered four million trips by nearly 70 000 users.

Another way of reducing air pollution and inner city congestion is to share cars. Greenwheels, one of Europe´s largest car-sharing businesses, operates in the Netherlands and Germany. Customers can use a car when needed, which fits in with the growing trend towards ‘on demand’ usage. The company estimates that sharing a car rather than owning one can replace 15 cars. Greenwheels members in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht can drive zero-emission electric cars as part of a project to support sustainable mobility subsidised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. Greenwheels also partners with NS Dutch railways, offering car sharing from 90 train stations around the country, thus improving city transport integration.

And beyond private cars, taxis are also turning ‘green’. Amsterdam-based Taxi Electric offers Europe’s first electric taxi service to both consumers and businesses. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport taxi companies operate almost 170 electric taxis, more than at any other airport in the world. Schiphol has also started operating 35 electric buses that run on power from its own solar panel electricity farm.

These may so far only be embryonic initiatives in addressing the overall scenario of urban traffic nightmares, but they are already succeeding for both economic and environmental reasons, and thus show considerable promise as a growth segment.

After all, people will always love cars, and the freedom to travel in them. But as Nobel prize-winning author and philosopher Albert Camus said: “Freedom is not constituted primarily of privileges but of responsibilities.”

Source for the image: Frederic Legrand – COMEO /
Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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